Ministers must set out remit of ‘high risk’ research funder – MPs

Science and Technology Committee says ‘Arpa’ may be most effective if set up outside UK Research and Innovation

February 12, 2021
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The Westminster government must clearly identify the need for and remit of its planned new funding agency for “high risk” research, according to MPs, who have suggested that it may work best as an independent entity outside UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

A new report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee says that questions about the remit, organisation and governance of the agency, dubbed Arpa, “would be made much more straightforward if the agency was established to serve a clear ‘client’ – most likely a government department”.

“The government has not clearly articulated the need for, or intended remit of, the proposed agency. To date, it seems to be a brand in search of a product,” it says.

Plans to create a UK equivalent of the US’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) were a Conservative manifesto commitment and featured in the Queen’s Speech in 2019 and 2020, but remain in the early stages of development.

The report highlights that Darpa serves the US Department of Defense and says potential candidates for Arpa could include “the Department of Health and Social Care (for a life-sciences-focused agency), the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (for a clean-energy/net-zero mission) or the Ministry of Defence”.

It calls for ministers to play a role in shaping Arpa’s initial focus but says that it may be best for the agency to be established outside of UKRI so it can “pursue ‘novel and contentious’ activities without case-by-case ministerial approval”. It adds that the government must clarify whether it intends to establish Arpa as a separate body or an agency within UKRI and “should be clear about whether this will require primary or secondary legislation and the likely timescales involved”.

UKRI had been keen to be the creator and overseer of the new agency, Times Higher Education understands, although this had been seen as increasingly unlikely

The report adds that the Haldane principle, which says that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves through peer review, “should not apply to how UK Arpa’s overall focus is determined” and the “pool of potential candidates for director should not necessarily be restricted to expert scientists”.

“Depending on how closely the government wants UK Arpa to replicate US Darpa, it should consider appointing a director with first-hand experience, or at least a good understanding, of Darpa in the US,” it says.

The committee recommends that Arpa focus on “mission based” or “challenge led” research, funds projects that would be considered “too risky by the existing research and innovation system” and “be prepared for some programmes to fail”. Given the size of the proposed budget – £800 million – it suggests that the agency should focus on “no more than two central missions”.

It adds that the government “must accept that these projects will take a long time, potentially 10 to 15 years, to ‘bear fruit’” and therefore “guarantee long-term funding for the agency and the programmes it will fund”. Funding is currently only guaranteed for the agency’s first five years.

The report also calls for Arpa to have “a distinct and flexible organisational structure”, a “high degree of autonomy” and “limited bureaucracy” and suggests that its programme managers are “ambitious ‘disruptors’, from a range of backgrounds, who are impact oriented, focused on the advancement of science and have CEO-like qualities”.

“Attracting these people will require sufficient remuneration. The government should explain how UK Arpa’s programme managers can be appointed outside normal pay restrictions in order to ensure that they are sufficiently remunerated,” it says.

The committee calls for the government to set out its plans for Arpa in a policy paper published before the end of the 2021-22 financial year.

Greg Clark, the committee’s chair, said that Arpa was to be welcomed, “but the budget will not be put to good use if Arpa’s purpose remains unfocused”.

“The government must make up its mind and say what Arpa’s mission is to be. Only then can the necessary high-risk, but hopefully high-reward research commence,” Mr Clark said.

A BEIS spokeswoman said that Arpa “will have the independence to experiment with new funding models to back cutting-edge, high-risk, high-reward science right here in the UK”.

“The government will be setting out further details about the new agency in the coming weeks and will continue to work at pace to deliver this exciting new addition to the UK R&D landscape,” she said.

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